Bette Davis is once again starring in a Somerset Maugham adaptation, this time his 1927 play The Letter, directed by William Wyler and written by Howard Koch.
The Letter was first adapted from Maugham’s play in 1929 and directed by Jean de Limur, and it is serendipitous that both actors who played the female lead, Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels in 1929, and Bette Davis in 1940), received Oscar nominations for their work, as well as Herbert Marshall having appeared in both versions (the first time as Geoffrey Hammond, and the second time as Leslie’s husband, Robert).
The 1940 version of The Letter opens with a long tracking shot, initially not showing the main event of Davis shooting a man. Instead, the camera spans across a plantation where only the crack of the gunshot is heard. Steely-gazed, Davis then appears, emptying a gun into the hapless gentleman.
She is Leslie Crosbie, a woman acting to supposedly “save her honour” by claiming that the man she shot, Geoffrey Hammond, came onto her- a married woman, no less. She’s arrested and awaits trial, until an incriminating letter threatens to get into the wrong hands. The letter, written by Crosbie to Hammond, outlines her motives for the killing, and makes her attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) suspicious.
But does it matter that Crosbie’s lawyer doesn’t believe her when the upper-class white courts of the British Empire do? Should- or can- one man’s opinion matter when the rest of the public seems content to acquit her of acting heroically?
The façade that Crosbie has so carefully constructed start to fall apart at the seams, first when she’s confronted by Hammond about the letter and later when her husband begins to piece things together. The cool mask that Davis’s Crosbie wears starts to slowly disappear, one crack and one expression at a time. Enduring a pressurized trial and having to re-establish ownership of the letter, the cool with which she shot Hammond eventually gives way to a muddled mess of emotions.
Davis, superb in all aspects, swings from reserved to devilish to evil, sometimes in tiny steps and sometimes in wild swings, but nonetheless follows an inevitable and fateful transition from predator to prey. And in the hands of the coolly calculating Wyler, the film takes all the dark moments of the play and transforms them into the sinister stuff of nightmares. The pacing is tight and taut right up until the end, with Davis coming full circle as she takes the processional march, unknowingly, towards her own execution.
Overt moments in the film had to be kept under wraps because of the Hays Code, but it can be argued that the effect was far more advantageous than detrimental. For instance, when Leslie is knifed at the end, the act itself isn’t shown, only a henchman clapping a rag over her face, Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) pulling out a dagger, and then a slumping body. The result is an outcome that visible to everyone, but with the details imagined separately for everyone who sees it. Some of the most skilled filmmakers, such as Hitchcock, knew that it’s always more powerful to suggest at something instead of overtly laying it out, and while it’s unknown which path Wyler would have taken had the Hays Code not been in full effect, the constraint of it works magnificently.